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Census Dispels 'Opting-Out' Notion for Stay-at-Home Moms

This may well be illuminating for many observers of family life, she said, because "the attention is always focused on this erroneous perception about the women at the top."

Stone, who studied successful women who left their careers for a 2007 book called "Opting Out?," said some shift course and focus on their children but "not at the numbers people think. Even among this advantaged group, there is no upward trend of staying at home."

The census report was based on nationally representative data from 2007, predating the current economic crisis.

Kathleen Gerson, a sociologist at New York University who studies families and the labor market, said the census figures come as a reality check.

Opting out, she said, "is not and never has been and will not be a revolution," she said. "Far more women are in the workplace than not, and there is no evidence to show that that will turn around."

For many women who stay home, low earnings and high child-care costs are part of the decision, she said. "Women with less education and fewer job opportunities were always more likely to withdraw or not be in the labor force," Gerson said. "The economic calculus is different."

The report did not show a proportionately high number of married African American mothers staying at home, but Kuae Mattox, a national board member of Mocha Moms, a nonprofit support organization for stay-at-home mothers of color, said she sees "a quiet revolution" of highly educated, professional African American women choosing to do so. This comes in spite of long family histories of women working, she said.

"I think this is a segment of the population that has been overlooked in the whole opt-out revolution in this country," she said.

The report showed that about 27 percent of stay-at-home mothers were Hispanic, compared with 16 percent of other mothers, and about 34 percent were born outside the United States, as compared with 19 percent of other mothers.

Stay-at-home mothers were more likely than other mothers to have an infant or preschooler in the house.

For the report, stay-at-home mothers were defined as those who did not work in the previous year, said they were home to care for their families and had a husband employed all 52 weeks.

Historically, the Census Bureau's annual population survey shows that there are more mothers at home now than in the mid-1990s.

In 1994, 19.8 percent of married-couple families with children younger than 15 had a stay-at-home mother. Last year, it was 23.7 percent of families -- an increase that Elliott said was statistically significant. "I don't think we exactly know why," she said.

In other findings, the census reported that 54 percent of District households with children younger than 18 were headed by single parents. In Maryland, 26 percent of such families were headed by single parents. In Virginia, the figure was 25 percent.

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